Five members of ROOM’s editorial board decided to read and discuss Coline Covington’s latest book, Who’s to Blame? Collective Guilt on Trial, the third of a series of writings that interweave psychoanalytic ideas with political, social, and group theories, to arrive at the possibility of a moral world. This was not intended to be her final writing on the topic, only to lay out some of the theoretical problems involved in thinking about acts of destruction and possible paths to repair and reconciliation. In her last weeks of life, Coline learned of our plan to honor rather than just review her book, for which she was touched and thankful.
Covington’s book tackles the question of whether collective blame, guilt, and reparation are necessary and effective steps in holding individuals and nations accountable for acts of evil, atrocities visited on others on a large scale. Her case examples include America’s centuries-old perpetuation of slavery, Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust, the current war between Russia and Ukraine, and other examples of our human capacity for destructiveness.
Covington wonders whether collective guilt is a viable concept. Can descendants of regimes that perpetrated crimes against humanity be held accountable for acts they did not perpetrate and made to participate in acts of atonement? Is it guilt or shame that is actually the relevant variable? Can we ever undo evil? Is it collective guilt or collective responsibility that is at issue? Does it require different models to account for guilt at the individual vs. collective level? She considers hatred, evil, revenge, commemorative gestures to embody guilt and reparation, and the overarching question of whether owning, atoning, and repairing are ever fully possible. When considering her thoughts about post-Holocaust Germany, we explored the difference between mere gestures and truly shouldering responsibility, as well as how long this kind of healing requires. If we assign the working-through of culpability to public acts of owning guilt, taking responsibility, and bearing shame, are we acting on a mistaken belief that one can ever “move on”? Perhaps such ownership can only ever be attempted, incomplete and needing to be monitored. We want to believe that guilt cleanses us, restores our goodness, but our humanity requires external controls, a rule of law.
In Kleinian theory, there is always an ongoing flux between constructive and destructive processes, occurring intrapsychically and in exchange with the external world. The central challenge is to be able to preserve the possibility of goodness and psychic equilibrium by bringing progressive and regressive trends together in such a way that we own our destructiveness, but repair and progression triumph. Can this happen on a world stage?
We are honored to have been able to learn from Coline’s life works, to have had her support as a reader, contributor, and proponent of ROOM, and for this opportunity for scholarly and searching conversation that captures her extraordinary devotion to the possibility of occupying our compassionate humanity more fully.
- Janet Fisher PhD, is a training and supervising psychoanalyst and on the faculty at the Insitute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPTAR). She is an editor and founding member of ROOM and is a member of ROOM’s board of directors.
- Who’s to Blame? Collective Guilt on Trial can be purchased from the Routledge website, as well as from other stockists like Amazon.
- From our first year, we remember with gratitude the essays Coline contributed to ROOM:
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